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Volume 21 No. 2
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Michael Ilitch: What others are saying


“Mike is one of the outstanding owners in baseball. He’s someone who has helped grow the game — always taking the approach of what’s best for the sport and the fans. In addition, he’s one of the true gentlemen in our game.”

— Fred Wilpon, New York Mets chairman and CEO


SBJ Podcast:
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour and NHL writer Christopher Botta discuss the life and career of Mike Ilitch.

“Mr. Ilitch is tremendous to work with. He never says, ‘This is your budget — stick to it.’ He’s aggressive. He wants to win. He tries to make things happen for us, instead of sitting back, stifling ideas and keeping to a budget.

“He spends money on talent so we can make revenue. His question to me often is, ‘Would you like to have him?’ If my answer is a strong yes, Mr. Ilitch helps get a deal done. We wouldn’t have Miguel Cabrera if Mr. Ilitch didn’t call me first about him. When Anibal Sanchez was going to be a free agent [in 2012], Mr. Ilitch said, ‘We don’t want to lose him, right?’ We kept Anibal.

“He’s not happy when we lose, believe me, but he understands sports and the trials and tribulations of a 162-game regular season. Mr. Ilitch is always there for us when we need him.”

— Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president, CEO and general manager

“When Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch bought the Tigers [in 1992], a group of us did a walk-through of Tiger Stadium’s exterior parking. In less than an hour, ‘Mr. I’ laid out the plans for a big food and retail complex outside the stadium. Today, it’s commonplace, but this was before Camden Yards or the Fenway concepts. Now the Cubs are doing it. He was the first. He just has that brilliant, creative vision. He was able to inject new life into Tiger Stadium until the timing for a new stadium ripened. Mr. Ilitch has had a profound effect on my career.”

— Len Perna, Turnkey Sports president and former executive director of the Tigers, Red Wings and Olympia Entertainment (1988-94)

“What more could you ask for from the owner of a baseball club? He was just fantastic to work for. He respected the clubhouse, so my day-to-day dealings with him were few and he did most of his communicating with Dave Dombrowski. He made it possible for us to get many of the best players when we wanted them and to keep most of the players we wanted. I was a very lucky man to get to manage for Mike Ilitch and I was proud to retire as a member of the Tigers.”

— Jim Leyland, former Tigers manager

“Mr. Ilitch gives the Tigers franchise everything that we could ever ask for. On a personal level, he hired me and he gives me the right to speak my mind whenever I think I can help the club. He has also been there for me in extraordinary ways when I’ve had some health issues. If I could, I’d nominate Mr. Ilitch for sainthood.”

— Willie Horton, former Tigers all-star and current special assistant to the president

“Mr. Ilitch would do just about anything for me, and I’d do anything for him. That should tell you how much he means to me. I’ve been a Tiger since 1953, but it was Mr. Ilitch who asked me to be part of the front office after my days as a broadcaster ended in 1996. He’s been a great owner because as a former ballplayer himself, he understands sports and the ups and downs. He believes in the importance of star players to sell tickets and contend for championships. I enjoy watching a few innings of Tigers games with him every once in a while because he’s intense and quiet. He loves the game and he loves the team, and he really cares.”

— Al Kaline, Tigers hall of famer and current special assistant to the president


“I’ve been the Red Wings’ manager since 1997, and not once has Mr. Ilitch ever turned us down when we’ve gone to him with a significant request for money so we could acquire a player. I have what every GM wants: I get to make the decision, and Mr. Ilitch has the final say.

“Before the salary cap [in 2005], we kept all of the players we needed to and signed a good percentage of the free agents that we really wanted. In the summer of 2001, we were coming off a tough playoff loss and we knew we had to add some top players. I had already signed Dominik Hasek in goal and Luc Robitaille for some scoring. We were already over budget. But one day, my phone rings. It’s Mr. Ilitch: ‘Let’s get Brett Hull.’ So we got Brett Hull and won the Stanley Cup the next year. … He encourages us to take risks, but good business risks.

“He’s such a good man. If we have a player getting surgery, Mr. Ilitch will show up at the hospital to look after him.

“During the hockey season, I’ll go to his suite for about 30 minutes before a game to keep him updated on our team. In the summer, I’ll go to Comerica and sit with him at the ballpark to talk hockey. I always look forward to spending time with Mr. Ilitch. He has a way that makes people want to do their best and be loyal.”

— Ken Holland, Red Wings general manager

“When the Red Wings were talking to me about the coaching job, Mike had me and my wife fly down to Florida to get to know him a little better. Within 10 minutes of talking with him, I wanted to coach the Red Wings and wanted to coach for him. He’s a great man, a self-made man who doesn’t put on airs. And he is so benevolent.

“After I was done coaching and working for Detroit in hockey ops, I never wanted to leave his organization because the Ilitches treated me so well. But my son, Stan, was working for the Blackhawks and he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When Chicago offered me a job so I could be closer to Stan, Mike Ilitch was the first person I called. ‘You have no choice — be with your son,’ Mike told me. ‘You and I are always going to be friends.’

“Mike’s a great family man, and he treats his teams as families. That approach spills into the locker rooms. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a big reason why the Red Wings and Tigers have won so many games.”

— Scotty Bowman, former Red Wings head coach

“Everyone says they are committed to their community, but Mike Ilitch really puts his money where his mouth is. Look at everything he’s done for Detroit.  And when you’re working for Mike and Marian, they have a real sense of family. I was part of that extended family. When I left the organization to go with Jim Lites to start the Dallas Stars, Mike — to be blunt — wasn’t very happy with me when I first told him. Marian was very sweet and understanding, but Mike wasn’t. Maybe it was the heat of the moment. Fast-forward to the first game of the Stars’ inaugural season, and wouldn’t you know it — the opponent in our first game is the Detroit Red Wings. Mike came to the game, and it was like it always was. He could not have been kinder, more gracious or more supportive. And for the last 20-plus years, it’s always hugs and smiles all around. Mike and Marian are really special people.”

— Jeff Cogen, former Olympia Entertainment executive (1987-93) and current Nashville Predators CEO

“Mr. Ilitch turned out to be a dream boss right from the start. As a GM, you hope for an owner who will be supportive, but he went above and beyond. He’d do anything to win. He made it possible for us to open those doors in Europe and come back with so many key players who were instrumental in us winning Stanley Cups.

“In 1983, I wanted to sign Brad Park, a great defenseman toward the end of his career, but someone I thought could be an important leader for our younger players. Brad had a pretty good offer to go back to the Bruins, who were offering him a job in the organization after he retired as a player. But I really wanted Park, so I went to Mr. Ilitch with an idea. I asked him if it was possible to offer him a two-year deal, along with an agreement that Brad would also get a Little Caesars store upon his retirement. Mr. Ilitch said, ‘Make it two stores.’ Brad signed with us.”

— Jim Devellano, Red Wings senior vice president and former GM

— Compiled by Christopher Botta